A Little Hug Goes a Long Way for Support

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What’s your favorite technique when your child is upset? Do you have a “go-to” response that you know has a good chance of helping calm the situation?

If you’re like me, one temptation you face is to immediately appeal to your child’s logic. You might say, “He didn’t mean to hit you when he threw the ball; it was just an accident, so you don’t have to get mad.” Or maybe you explain, “She can’t invite everyone in your whole class to her party.”

The problem with this logical appeal is that it assumes that the child is capable of hearing and responding to reason at this moment. But when she’s hurt, or angry, or disappointed, the logical part of her brain isn’t fully functioning. That means that an appeal to reason isn’t usually going to be your most effective tool for helping her gain control over her emotions and calm herself.

There will be time to bring in logic and reason, but first, it’s important to connect with her emotionally, to help her know that you care about her feelings, and how she’s feeling.

How do you do this? Well, for one thing, you mirror her feelings. “Wow, sounds like that really made you mad when the ball hit you,” or, “That’s so disappointing , isn’t it, when you don’t get invited to a friend’s party.” You can also use nonverbal communication, like sympathetic facial expressions.

But the most powerful nonverbal response of all is one that you probably do automatically: you touch her. You put your hand on her arm. You pull her close to you. You rub her back. You hold her hand.

A loving touch – whether subtle like the squeeze of a hand or more demonstrative like a full, warm embrace – has the power to quickly help diffuse a heated situation.

The reason? When we feel someone touch us in a way that’s nurturing and loving, feel-good hormones (like oxytocin and ophioids) are released into our brain and body, and our stress hormone (called cortisol) decreases. In other words, touching your kids literally and beneficially alters their brain chemistry.

So the next time your child comes to you crying, or red-faced with fury, try to keep yourself from immediately playing the logic card. Instead, mirror feelings, and use nonverbal communication, especially the power of loving touch. Then, and only then, once you’ve used a nurturing touch to help calm things down and connect during the moment of high stress, you can effectively bring in reason and logic.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, a South Pasadena resident, is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of two New York Times bestsellers: “The Whole-Brain Child” and “No- Drama Discipline.” She is the executive director of the Center for Connection in Pasadena and a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist. She keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and clinicians all over the world. www.TinaBryson.com

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